Rhode Island: Working to Improve Access to Oral Health Care for Children through RIte Smiles and TeethFirst!

By Katherine Chu and Jim Beasley, Rhode Island KIDS COUNT

Oral health is a critical but overlooked component of overall health and well-being among children and adults. Poor oral health has immediate and significant negative impacts on children’s general health, school attendance and academic achievement. Untreated dental disease can lead to eating, sleeping, speaking and learning problems in children and adolescents. This affects a child’s social interactions, general health and quality of life. Given the significant impact oral health has on a child’s life, it was good to see CCF focus attention on pediatric dental coverage in the second brief in the Future of Children’s Health Coverage series.

Oral health problems can largely be prevented through a combination of access to timely dental care, access to fluoridated water systems and topical fluoride treatments, healthy nutrition and habits, and at-home care.

RIte Smiles: Improving Access to Dental Care for Rhode Island Children

Rhode Island has made great progress in improving access to oral health care for children in Rhode Island over the past decade. Continued investments in oral health, including expanded access to dental care, will help promote lifelong overall health for Rhode Island’s children.

RIte Smiles, Rhode Island’s managed care oral health program for children born on or after May 1, 2000, has been credited with improving access to dental care (both preventive and treatment services) for young children. The number of dentist accepting qualifying children increased from 27 before RIte Smiles began to 90 at the launch of RIte Smiles. Today, RIte Smiles provides coverage to 94,902 children age 16 and under through a network of 359 unduplicated dentists in 195 practice locations. As a result, 76% of all Medicaid dental claims were for RIte Smiles members during State Fiscal Year (SFY) 2015.

Even with this notable achievement, continued progress is still needed. Forty-four percent (57,108) of the children and youth under age 21 who were enrolled in RIte Smiles or Medicaid fee-for-service dental coverage received any dental service during SFY 2015. This is down from SFY 2014 (51%), but the number of children receiving dental services has increased by 37% since 2005 (41,541). Rhode Island ranked 32nd in the U.S. for children enrolled in Medicaid with a dental visit in 2014.

September 2016 marks the 10th anniversary of the implementation of RIte Smiles. Starting with just 30,000 of the youngest kids, RIte Smiles was launched on Sept. 1, 2006. Today, RIte Smiles includes children from birth through age 16, and has more than tripled!

TeethFirst!: Promoting Healthy Smiles to the Community

One initiative aimed at increasing dental utilization across the state, especially among Rhode Island’s youngest children, is the TeethFirst! campaign. TeethFirst! is a free bilingual resource for Rhode Islanders, all about children’s oral health and dental care. TeethFirst! promotes early dental visits, and provides free resources and information to help create healthy smiles for a lifetime. Find TeethFirst! in English at www.TeethFirstRI.org, and in Spanish at www.PrimeroLosDientes.org!

Healthy teeth allow babies to chew food and talk. They also help shape a baby’s face and hold open spaces for adult teeth to grow in—adult teeth are bigger than baby teeth, so they need a lot of space. When families take care of a baby’s teeth by brushing at home and going for checkups at the dentist, dental visits become a way to prevent cavities instead of just treating them when they happen. That’s why clinicians recommend that children first visit the dentist before age one.

However, only 1.8% of infants and one year old children in the U.S. have ever visited a dentist, compared with 89% who have seen a physician annually. In Rhode Island, children under age six are less likely to have received a dental check-up or cleaning in past 12 months than children over age six.

TeethFirst! is for:

Parents and Families

  • Encourages parents and families to take their children for early dental visits
  • Explains dental coverage and how to find a dentist
  • Identifies dental providers who will care for their children
  • Promotes the importance of dental visits and care among for pregnant women

Dental Providers

  • Shared clinical guidelines and child-friendly practices
  • Enhances provider knowledge, skills, and comfort with treating very young children
  • Provides free patient education tools, as well as reimbursement and professional development information

Health Care Providers

  • Educates health care providers about the importance of oral health
  • Shares resources to build with health care providers’ skills in talking about oral health with their patients
  • Informs heath care providers about how to refer their patients to a dental home

Community Organizations (WIC, Early Head Start, Head Start, Child Care Providers, etc.)

  • Educates staff at community organizations that serve families about the importance of oral health
  • Shares resources about oral health for staff and families

Find TeethFirst! in English at www.TeethFirstRI.org, and in Spanish at www.PrimeroLosDientes.org. You can also find TeethFirst! on Twitter (@TeethFirst) and Facebook (TeethFirst).

We know it takes a community working together to keep our children healthy. TeethFirst! and RIte Smiles are just two Rhode Island initiatives that, along with others, are helping to put our children on a path to healthy smiles for a lifetime.

Katherine Chu, Communications Manager and Jim Beasley, Health Policy Analyst at Rhode Island KIDS COUNT. Rhode Island KIDS COUNT is a policy and advocacy organization that works to improve the health, safety, education, economic well-being, and development of Rhode Island’s children. Please visit www.rikidsocunt.org for more information.